by Sarah Pearse
When I’m out on the water I remember me, the person I used to be.
This person – paddle slicing through glassy water, is free. She can take off on a whim, takes pleasure in the unexpected, and is always on the cusp of discovering something new – a hidden cove, a shoal of darting, silvery mackerel, a secret house only glimpsed from the sea.
I lost sight of her for a while – sticky child hands tangled in hair, knee-deep in toast-crumbed plates and deadlines. This me, the old me, seemed distant – another person.
But when I’m kayaking, I glimpse her – the adventurer, the early twenty-something who got crazy-early flights across Europe, who stayed up half the night, took risks without looking back.
She’s me at the extremes, stripped back, sharp-edged, always teetering on the brink of something. I don’t want to lose sight of her. She reminds me of who I am at the core, who I was and what I found important before the rest of the world came piling in.
My kayak is a bright, cerulean blue, and sturdy, with smooth, solid curves. We bought it on a whim, after a routine operation became something more dramatic – me, clock-watching as my husband’s thirty minute operation became four hours, words muttered about haemorrhaging, cauterising, complications.
“There’s something primal about paddling. It feels ancient, this action, the rhythm of it.”
When he finally emerged, he still wasn’t well. I can still picture the nurse’s flushed face, the junior doctor’s shaking hand as it dawned that things weren’t quite going to plan. Consultants called, more drugs administered.
I’d never faced death like that before, looked it right in the eye. What scared me the most was how lonely it was – my husband would usually be the one I turned to in a crisis, but this time the crisis was him.
But he made it through, and after, there was a freedom about him – something loose, untethered. We did the things we’d only talked about before – took the risky job, adopted the kitten my daughter wanted (not just one, but two), bought the kayak I’d been coveting.
It worked, timing wise. The year before, I was still feeding my daughter. I couldn’t leave her for an hour, let alone go off on my own. I realised it had been five years since I’d done something like this, an adventure just for me.
I can still remember how free I felt, paddling off from the shore alone, wind tangling my hair around my face, tasting salt and minerals on my lips.
There’s something primal about paddling. It feels ancient, this action, the rhythm of it. You feel part of the water, literally feeling it, its movements, as it resists the paddle stroke by stroke.
So low on the water, without the grumble or whine of a motor, the birds mistake you for one of them. They arc through the sky, caterwauling, or sit perched on a nearby rock, feathers slick with water. Cormorants dive headfirst into the water right in front of you, only to reappear a minute later, black heads gleaming.
I chart the changing seasons from the water, and I’ve learnt that the sea has its own topography. I now know where the rocks are, crusty with barnacles, just jutting out of the water, and where the beds of sea grass hide, the swathes of seaweed – gelatinous green ropes and brown fern-like growths that loop around the paddle.
I love the feeling you have at the end of a paddle – a sensation of moving forwards but also returning to something. A cycle.
This sensation . . . it lingers. On the water, stroke by stroke, your mind has loosened, so even when you’re back on dry land, thoughts drift, untethered – backwards, forwards, free.
I can’t wait to introduce my daughters to this world, but I know I’ll kayak alone – to remember me, the me I used to be.
Sarah is an author from South Devon, writing from her beach hut by the sea. Her work has been published in Mslexia, Litro and a variety of magazines. She has been longlisted and shortlisted in various competitions including the Bristol Short Story Prize and the Mslexia Short Story Competition. She is represented by Charlotte Seymour of Andrew Nurnberg Associates